“I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.” – Frederick Buechner
Be gentle with me, dear reader. Please be tender and generous and kind with me. This is my heart, spilled out in letters and words, and it’s more than a little vulnerable and afraid. But I come to you, sharing my story and telling my secrets because I firmly believe that by so doing, perhaps someone else can begin to find freedom.
I found an old newspaper article the other day. A story from my childhood that you would hardly believe could be true. I never dreamed I could so easily find the details – maybe because the actual event feels so surreal that on some level it seems it couldn’t possibly be real – but there it is in black and white print. A miracle of Google. I was 8 years old. My father suffered a psychotic break and in his attempts to protect his family from the people he thought were chasing us, he took off with all of us in his private plane. Flying cross-country with his wife and two small children in a harrowing journey that would seem more appropriate to come out of Hollywood than my past, he ended up making an emergency landing in a nuclear power facility in Idaho. We were immediately surrounded by security officers and interrogated for several hours, something that I’m quite sure only fueled my father’s delusions. “Engine trouble,” the article called it. That’s why they say he landed the plane where he did. And maybe there was engine trouble. But my memory says that engine trouble is code for what happens when you’re being flown across the country by a man who had quite literally lost his mind.
If you would have asked me a couple of years ago if this event still impacted me today, I’d have laughed off your question with a lighthearted “Of course not!” I would have talked about how it was something that had happened to me but that it didn’t define me; that it didn’t impact the way I walked through the world today or interacted with those I love. I’d tell you that I was only made stronger from the experience and that nothing inside of me was wounded or frail or broken or hurting. I would have confidently said that I’d dealt with it and moved on. I’d have said with deep conviction that one traumatic event like that didn’t have much of an impact on me.
And maybe it didn’t… maybe if taken in isolation, that one harrowing plane landing and terrifying journey didn’t have much impact on me. But I understand something now that I didn’t understand a few years ago. That plane landing represents so much more – years of an unpredictable and chaotic family rollercoaster with long stretches of relative stability and short bursts of unbelievable turmoil; years tainted by an always-present undercurrent of mental illness, alcohol abuse, and emotional turbulence. What I now understand is that those years left a mark on my heart and soul that is undeniably profound— but that I also undeniably denied.
Sometimes when you get off a rollercoaster, you don’t quite know which way is up. It takes a while to get your bearings. And maybe if you ride the rollercoaster long enough, your whole system is recalibrated. Abnormal becomes normal. Roles get reversed. Trust is exchanged for control. I exited the rollercoaster of my upbringing with a great head on my shoulders (something that seems a bit surprising to me), a need to be perfect and please, and a deep conviction that I was responsible for the well-being of those around me. I was accustomed to being emotionally responsible for those who were supposed to take care of me, and I was only too ready to step into that role for anyone I thought needed it. Looking back I think it was this brokenness that fueled my heart for orphans in many ways… and perhaps even served as part of my personal drive to live four years in China, working on their behalf. I was a wounded healer. A year before we adopted, I heard Karyn Purvis say at an Empowered to Connect conference that lots of us wounded healers find our way into fostering and adoption. I knew in that moment that she was talking about me, but I didn’t yet know what that meant.
This is where the story gets blurry and messy. I’m starting to know more deeply my own brokenness, but it’s hard to find the edges; to define it and categorize it and break it down so I can explain it. It’s still hard for me to understand the full implications of my childhood trauma in my life today. Sometimes I feel as if, for most of my adult life, I’ve been sitting on the banks of a cold, dark pond, tucked away in some hidden mountain valley. The pond has a chipped little sign next to a creaky dock that tells me it’s called My Wounding, and I’ve stood at the edges and admired how the surface is so calm. In fact, when the light hits it just right and the air around is still, it’s beautiful. Its dark and murky waters don’t seem terrifying to me, but rather peaceful, and I feel comfortable on the shores. I’ve been content sitting there on the banks, looking out at the water but feeling none of its effects. I hardly notice when the wind blows and causes a few ripples, even when it gets my feet a little wet, because I’m still comfortably in control… sitting there on the edge, staring out at the surface I know will soon be still again.
But then Alea came home. And I found myself all alone, standing in my kitchen with a broken-hearted child wailing in my arms. I could plainly see – perhaps more than anyone else around – that this little one, newly not-an-orphan, needed far more healing than I could possibly provide in my own strength. And just like that, My Wounding
was struck by a gale-force storm. Clinging to my newly-adopted daughter, it seemed the stormy waters overtook us both; as if the pond had suddenly and unexpectedly tripled in size and there wasn’t time to clamber to higher ground. I was fighting to keep both of our heads above water, and I couldn’t hear His voice whispering peace and calm into the storm above the angry and loud din of my own fears and brokenness. The storm raged, and My Wounding
And there it was. I was a caregiver who couldn’t be all that her child needed. A wounded healer who couldn’t heal another. I was a woman who had learned to the very core of her being that the easiest way to cope with unpredictable and fearful people was to build strong and secure emotional walls (I think the experts call it avoidant attachment), and I found myself fighting to attach to my daughter when everything in me was screaming to detach, check out, build walls, and emotionally walk away. I was living with the weight of these impossible contradictions and saw no end in sight. I gulped and gasped and all I seemed to get was mouthfuls of murky water. The storm didn’t pass, and it felt as if I were drowning as waves of her grief and loss crashed into my own. As the waves crashed, the waters grew more turbulent and murky, stirring up My Wounding until the calm and peaceful (albeit dark) pond was a distant memory and I was left frantically sand-bagging; fighting back the dangerous waters of my own inadequacies and brokenness as I tried to claim safe, secure, and stable ground for myself and my family.
The sandbags didn’t hold.
How could they? We were never meant to stand our own ground, to be our own healers, to save ourselves. And while the storm didn’t lessen in intensity, miraculously something began to shift and I started to hear His voice in the middle of it all. He’s always been good about speaking to storms. He used friends and family, pastors, dreams, and sometimes a nearly audible voice speaking to the deepest places in my heart to help me ride the waves – one-by-one, moment-by-moment. He was always my daily bread. I started letting Him fill the sandbags.
I wouldn’t say that the waves have all calmed yet. Daily I find myself sometimes still gasping for air as I struggle to get my head above the neediness, brokenness, and loss that continues to shape such a large part of my beautiful child’s personality. Or more honestly, I struggle to get my head above the way her loss crashes into my own need to make her world whole and perfect and right, a task I can never accomplish. But in my deepest places, I know My Wounding will never be the same. He’s spoken freedom straight to the deepest parts of my heart, and now that those waters have been stirred, I’m no longer content to sit on the shore of that dark and quiet pond. Its peacefulness is deceptive, and it no longer feels like a comfortable part of my story.
A few months ago, I began going to counseling. It isn’t easy. It means looking at hard things from childhood I’ve never really considered and have even worked hard to hide; not from others so much, but mostly from myself. It feels like I’m wading out into the middle of My Wounding, and it takes everything I have to trust that God will keep my head above the water. As I wade out, I hear His whisper calling me to go out further and in deeper. I hear Him asking me to trust Him as He holds my hand and helps me look straight and deep into the waters of My Wounding. I hear Him promising me that as I do that, His redemptive and healing hand will touch those waters and make them clean, clear and life-giving. Waters to sustain me and nurture my children.
I don’t like writing stories when I don’t know how they end. It feels safer to start the journey of sharing when I know the moral of the story; when the lesson can be neatly summarized and tied up with a preferably tidy ending and pretty little bow. Even when the story is filled with many broken roads, I don’t mind sharing when I can see God’s redemptive hand working to bring beauty out of the brokenness.
But this isn’t really one of those times… though I do see signs of His goodness and redemption, I’m still very much in the thick of a journey down a very broken road – or perhaps wading deeper into a very murky pond. And part of me would rather stay silent. Partially because I also don’t like sharing stories that deal with the brokenness of others. Sure part of this is my story, but it is also the story of my family, of my parents. And I can promise you that they don’t see much of it in the same way. Despite our deep differences, my heart’s desire is to honor them, and I understand that telling secrets like this could seem to some as deeply dishonoring. That has been one of the things that has held me back from sharing for so long.
But that isn’t the only reason it is hard to share. I also struggle with wanting to stay silent so that I can preserve the appearance that all is well in the hidden valleys of my heart. That My Wounding doesn’t exist, or if it does, that it has never been anything more than a comfortable place to sit and remember the past.
But that isn’t the truth. It isn’t safe and it isn’t free to pretend that My Wounding is benign or beautiful. And I feel called to testify. To speak of His goodness even when I don’t know how this story will end.
Because I know I’m not the only one with My Wounding tucked neatly and quietly away. I’m not the only one who has sat on its eerily quiet shores and appreciated the fact that all appears so calm and still; who tells herself there’s nothing too dangerous in those waters. I’m not the only one who has found herself so comfortable there on the banks that it even starts to feel like home.
And I’m not the only one who has gone through the very unnatural-but-sacred act of making an orphan her son or daughter, and in so doing, find that when I think I’m only standing on the shores of someone else’s wounding, I’m actually knee deep in my own – frightened by how fast the water is rising and the way it threatens all I know to be true about myself. I’m not the only one who has discovered that her trauma triggers my trauma; her grief triggers my grief; and her loss triggers my loss. And as I watch my precious daughter struggle along her own journey to wholeness, doing my best to help her find her way, I know I’m not the only one to suddenly realize with shocking clarity just how far I personally am from the place I want to take her.
So this isn’t a happily ever after story – yet. This is me, writing a dispatch from the front lines, neck deep in My Wounding and clinging to the hand of a safe God who I’m only just now starting to be able to call Father with any degree of trust and surrender and tenderness in my voice. And I’m calling out to you… you sitting there on the shores of Your Wounding. I want to tell you that when you’re holding His hand, it’s OK to jump in.
It’s hard work, but when we understand what’s in those waters and let Him make them clear, we will be able to better lead our children through theirs.