In her book The Gifts of Imperfection author Brene Brown describes those living “wholeheartedly” as “consistently trying to feel the feelings, staying mindful about numbing behaviors, and trying to lean into the discomfort of hard emotions.” Once I started down the path to healing, I was stubbornly determined to do whatever it took to complete the mission.
My counseling duo, Sharon and Paul, both made it clear that if I were to enter into another relationship before I had learned what needed to be uncovered and healed, I would be heading into another disaster. To move on to a new person in one’s brokenness means you are bringing a wounded person to a relationship. And, wounded people often attract other wounded people. There would be no “Match.com” or other futile attempts to numb myself with someone new. I was going to “lean into the pain” as Sharon had put it.
I made sure I did not drink alcohol carelessly, and I increased my yoga classes and journaling. I had to be especially careful about over working, identifying work as my drug of choice. I love my clients and hearing people’s stories. I listened to them tell their pain in mediation and as often happens, there were insights into myself as I listened to them.
Father A in Arizona continued to be a trooper. I felt like God was using him to reel me back in and I hadn’t even noticed that I had drifted away. One of the things that had appealed to me about FP was what I perceived to be his strong spiritual base. I learned after we married that his spiritual nature was not authentic; what I had believed was a source of connectedness between us was rather another deep loneliness. With the backing of Father A, I began to go to my Greek Orthodox church in Iowa consistently. Often during the week I’d stop by the empty church on my way back to my office from the courthouse. I’d sit there in the dim light alone, looking at the icons and talking to God. Father A had encouraged me to pray Psalm 51 (Psalm 50 in the Orthodox Bible), and I would read it slowly, softly out loud in the empty church, focusing on one word or phrase.
At first the words that I meditated on were pain words: “transgressions,” “iniquity,” “sin,” “bones you have crushed,” “a broken spirit.” But over time, as I moved deeper into the Psalm, I found the perfect prescription for my healing. Verse 10 gave me the most courage: “Create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” I knew I did not want to close or numb my heart, and I worried that would happen. I would often leave the church willing myself to be steadfast in spirit. What I thought was my will, I later realized was God pouring out His grace.
The Psalm says: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.” Eventually I began to feel better. I thought I had turned a corner. God, church and my “personal work” in therapy became the center point of my life. I was healing! And then, after missing for months, FP decided to return to church. At times he would bring women he was dating with him. And a new challenge of recovery happened. I began to have panic attacks in church. Although my mind and soul were being cleansed and rewired, my body somehow was still storing memories. I would shake, feel like I was going to vomit, and have shortness of breath. I berated myself for being so weak. Panic attacks? Really?! It was no longer a “leaning into” issue. I was going to be thrown right smack up into the sharp edges.
Counselor Paul helped me through it. Being raised as Greek Orthodox he knew the pattern of the liturgy. He knew my faith was a lifeline. He suggested I sit in the very front row, so I could focus on the icon of Christ, being oblivious to the people and circumstances behind me. At the point where we all turn to face the back of the church as the cross is brought through, I would bow my head down and look at the floor until we all turned again to the front. This worked beautifully for a time, until FP took it upon himself to begin sitting in the front row directly across the aisle from me. I was tempted to stop going to church, but I knew if I did I would lose ground. Father A encouraged me, and I would take periodic trips to Arizona to worship with peace and serenity in my church there, often having confession and making sure I was fortified in my Orthodoxy before returning to Iowa. My doctor in Iowa gave me medication to take when I would begin to have a panic attack, sometimes on the way to church. My worship on those few days was the equivalency of worship after a strong martini, but I eventually trained my body to let the wave run through me and over me. I knew reliance on medication for more than a short time was numbing.
I stood alone in church for months, feet planted firmly with heart open in mountain pose that I had learned in yoga, trusting God and letting Him know in no uncertain terms I was going with Him. No matter what. And I trusted He was faithful—all the time. FP’s attendance became sporadic, so I would get periodic breaks. Eventually the panic attacks faded. God was carrying me through yet again.
A wonderful Ethiopian man in the church became a great friend to me. When I walked down the aisle of the church for weekly communion, he would leave his seat and get directly behind me in line. I felt that someone had my back. He would go to drink coffee with me after church, and I told him parts of my story. He listened without judgment and was unconditionally supportive, encouraging me to trust God. He told me about his time in a refugee camp and how God and his faith had sustained him. His faith was a beacon for me; his survival an inspiration. I was grateful to him and to God who had obviously thrown me a lifeline in this beautiful friend. Months later I would have the chance to help him in his immigration case to bring his wife over from Ethiopia. As God often does, he put two people together who were uniquely situated to help each other.
Brene Brown says that we can’t selectively numb emotions. When you “take the edge off pain” you also unintentionally dull good feelings and joy. When we numb the dark, we numb the light. Through standing in the pain, I reconnected with the most important ingredient of healing: the One True Light. In the months to come God would show me through my relationship with Him that His love was limitless, beyond a specific church, religion or definition. He would begin to show me things about my life from a new perspective, His.